A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Greed

A look at perhaps the most important issue of our day

Encouraged by the constructive spirit of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I have been keenly interested in the ways in which mental health professionals are helping us to understand the dynamics of our country's troubles.   For our country's problems not only involve the dynamics of economics, war, and politics, they involve the dynamics of human psychology.   We are lucky to have a number of Psychology Today bloggers weighing in on the subject.  Here's my two cents—a psychoanalyst's take on perhaps the most important issue in our day.

We see some of our most influential and powerful leaders tilting more and more toward narcissism, envy, and greed, slowly undermining the democratic experiment of our young nation and the precarious complexity of a global society.  The destructive power of greed is the main focus of the Occupy Wall Street movement with its protest of social and economic inequality, corporate excess, and the undue influence of corporations on government, especially from the financial service and health care insurance sectors.  While in practice, the Occupy Wall Street movement has its own problematic dynamics, I think the spirit of the message is worth thinking about.

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Greed is a hot topic in psychoanalytic circles.  It is a powerful force in human relating, in the dynamics between children and their parents, in friendships, in the workplace, and particularly in economic and political circles.  While we all have and will always have some measure of greed in our personalities and society, the kind of greed we see at work in some of our country's leaders today is precisely the kind of greed that psychoanalyst Melanie Klein described in her most important paper, Envy and Gratitude.  She wrote, "Greed is an impetuous and insatiable craving, exceeding what the subject needs and what the object is able and willing to give...  Its aim is destructive introjection."

Greed is impetuous, meaning sudden and rash, hasty and headlong, thoughtless and even violent.

Greed is insatiable, meaning incapable of being satisfied, devouring, gorging, and acting as if there's no such thing as enough.

Greed takes without giving, takes too much, takes more than what is needed, takes more than is healthy, wise, and sane for the object to give. 

Greed takes advantage.

It is important here to make a distinction between wealth and greed. There are many wealthy people who are not dominated by greed, who have a balance of concern for themselves and concern for others. It is also true that people who are not wealthy can be destructively motivated by greed.  The problem is not the wealth, but what is done with it.

I think Klein's definition of greed sheds some light on our current economic politics.  To use the language of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I would find it difficult to make a case that The 1% is actively interested in harming The 99%, as some might suggest.  Rather, it seems to me that the destructiveness results from excessive self-interest and a profound lack of concern for others.  "More for me" is better, period.  It does not seem to matter that others are hurt, depleted, and have no more to give. 

The 1% may cry innocence, saying that they are merely success stories of capitalism and democracy  at work.  Certainly this is true for some.  But for others, it seems only true up to a point.  And for an influential minority, it has gone too far.  "Every man for himself" can become greed disguised as the American dream.  It is not freedom at work; it is selfishness unleashed.  It is what Klein called destructive introjection. 

Human ambition is an asset only when it is properly yoked with concern for others.  This balance is an essential foundation for civilization, especially for democracy.  For when ambition is set loose from proper self-restraint, it becomes destructive. 

A guiding principle of psychoanalysis and other models of psychology is the idea that love, concern, and gratitude are necessary protections from greed, envy, and narcissism.   As parent figures, our leaders should model this wisdom and these qualities.  But the roles seem to have been reversed.  It is my hope that the wisest people among The 100% will have more to say about it.

Copyright 2011 Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

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Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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